"Shattering Our Religious Cocoons"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - March 25, 2007
Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:4b-14
Jesus found himself facing centuries of oral and written tradition where the Law of Moses and the words of prophets had fashioned the practices, rituals and beliefs of the Jews. In Jesus’ day, sowing a seed that suggested that there was more for people to consider than remaining obedient to the Law and the Prophets was blasphemy. Blasphemy was considered far more dangerous than a rebellion against Rome. Blasphemy struck at the heart of their religion and their historical perspective as God’s chosen people.
This morning we will consider what message Jesus brought and why that message became such a bitter pill for the religious pillars of Jesus’ community to swallow. In order to set the stage, we need to hear again what the prophet Isaiah wrote in one of our lessons for today.
The Jews enjoyed celebrating their liberation from Egypt, an event that occurred through a series of God’s highly visible and dramatic acts against Pharaoh and his military. Isaiah cautioned his readers, however, with a new word from God. “The Lord says, ‘Do not cling to events of the past or dwell on what happened long ago. Watch for a new thing I am going to do.’” (Isaiah 43:18-19a).
Isaiah knew that people could be held captive by ancient stories of God’s highly visible power and about God’s favoritism of the Jews over all other people. Isaiah knew that his people could not find hope for their lives by continuing to recite memories experienced by others during a much earlier time.
Isaiah began to foretell that something new was going to break into their consciousness and they must remain alert and watch for it. Isaiah was sowing a seed that would shatter the existing cocoon Judaism had become, a seed that would give birth to new ways of thinking.
One of the most difficult things even for a prophet to accomplish is to shatter a dominant thought pattern that governs the beliefs of people.
During the NCAA playoffs, for example, basketball teams have to play at their peak performance night after night. Sometimes players read words from informed sports commentators who cite statistics and declare that it will take a miracle for their team to win. How does a coach convince his team that they are miracle workers?
The greatest nightmare of any coach is to face a championship game with a team that shows up in body, but not in spirit. How does that coach prevent his team from doubting themselves when they have to face a team with a remarkable, undefeated record? The coach has to change how his or her team members think.
Years ago there was a physical therapist in my life who was nicknamed by her colleagues, “Harpoon Hannah” because of her exacting formula for helping people to walk again. Orthopedic surgeons routinely referred the most emotionally and spiritually defeated patients to her because if anyone could help them over come their belief that they would never walk again it was Hannah.
To her peers, Hannah was ruthless, cruel and callous in her methods. Some of her patients became so frightened of her that they thought she was going to kill them. Almost all of them threatened her with lawsuits. Her response was always the same, “Good! When we go before that judge, you will be walking into the courtroom.” She had to shatter the cocoon of their belief that they would never walk again before they could begin the healing process.
We can only imagine what Jesus faced when his ministry began. How could people change their religious thinking and practices when such ideas and rituals had been centuries in the making? We know that Jesus succeeded because of what the Apostle Paul wrote to Jesus’ followers who lived in Philippi.
What started Paul walking down this unique spiritual path that caused him to abandon everything on which he had once stood? If you recall your history, it was Paul who held the garments of others who were part of an angry mob that hurled stones at Stephen, the first Christian martyr. As stones pelted his body Stephen fell to the ground and cried out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. Do not remember this sin against them.” (Acts 7:59f)
Paul stood there stunned. For all his learning, all his pedigree and all his perfect living under the Law, he realized his faith could not compare to what was being made visible by Stephen. Paul remembered that Jesus had spoken similar words while hanging from a cross. Paul, who was then Saul of Tarsus, was about to have his religious cocoon shattered.
When we understand what it was that Jesus brought into our world, we awaken to the new thing that Isaiah envisioned. Jesus knew that learning to extend loving energy does not come from discipline or obedience to a law code; it comes from human desire when people willingly choose to reveal God’s presence in all circumstances.
While visiting a woman who was dying of AIDS, a Roman Catholic priest listened as Sarah confessed to countless sins she had committed in her past. She was going on and on about everything that she had ever done that she feared would prevent her from receiving God’s love.
The priest was turning a deaf ear to her litany of self-pity because he knew that she had been an accomplished teacher who had influenced and inspired the lives of hundreds of students. He realized that he was listening to the voice of guilt and remorse.
The priest noticed a picture of a lovely young woman on the top of her dresser. He interrupted her crying and asked, “Is that a picture of your daughter?” She said, “Yes. I love her so much. She is everything I always wanted to be.” The priest asked, “Is there anything she could do that would cause you not to love her?” She said, “No, nothing.” He turned toward her, smiled with reassurance and said, “I happen to know that God has a picture of you on His dresser.” He reached out and held her with arms that communicated comfort, forgiveness and peace.
This is what it looks like to reveal God’s spirit in all circumstances. This response has more to do with compassion than specific beliefs. This response has more to do with empathy and surrounding someone with kindness and acceptance rather than judgment. It is no wonder that Paul wrote “I have given up everything in order to be united with Christ.” He found that it was far more rewarding to attract people with a message of love than to persecute those who believed differently.
Jesus gave his followers and his listeners a glimpse of what it is like to live in eternity now. Substantive living is not a matter of good works. Substantive living is not a matter of having the correct beliefs. Substantive living is not a matter of worshipping with the time-honored rituals and religious ceremonies prescribed by whatever community of faith to which people belong. Jesus did not stress the importance of such things. He stressed the importance of a changed heart. For this message he paid with his life.
Paul wrote that we can change the quality of our lives by being united with, “the righteousness that comes from God.” Jesus once said to his disciples, “The words I have spoken to you do not come from me. They come from God who does his work through me.” (John 14:10)
From this perspective, when we read the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5, 6 and 7, we see that Jesus was not giving his listeners another set of rules. These were skills that could be perfected through practice. The more we extend our loving energy patterns, the more our wills refuse to fall victim again to the illusions our minds create concerning our living in a material world.
These illusions actually scream at us with authority, “You need to be right. You can’t let that person get away with what they are doing! You had better get in there and fight for what’s yours! No one else is going to look after your interests. It’s okay to hide income on your tax return. You’re worth it. You won’t be happy until you leave your wife and take up with your new friend who understands you so much better. Why should you forgive them? They are the ones who created this mess.”
Jesus’ teachings described what was possible when our lives communicate from the same source as his. We become new creatures capable of communicating confidence, trust and peace. These are the qualities of God. We are not the wretched, fallen, sin-ridden creatures that reflect the labels clerics have used for centuries to describe people. We are God’s sons and daughters who can make a difference when God’s light shines through us.
I remember talking to a single Mom whose daughter was taken into custody for under age drinking. The judge sentenced her to 200 hours of community service. He placed her in a facility for unwed mothers. She had to be at that residence every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night for three hours. Not only did this ruling take her out of circulation with her friends, but the sentence also put her in touch with stories that came from young women, many who were the same age as she.
She learned that some of these young women had no values that guided their decision-making. A number of them felt unloved, misunderstood and vulnerable. They did not know who they had the potential to become because no one had been their teacher, coach, or mentor.
Amanda possessed many skills she had learned from her mother. As time passed, she began helping the girls to understand how each of them had remarkable qualities. She helped them learn not to judge themselves harshly because they were pregnant. When Amanda finished her 200 hours, she returned to the facility as a volunteer. By giving herself away, Amanda discovered talents and gifts she never knew she had. She did not need alcohol to gain acceptance by others. Amanda matured in spirit not because of what she believed but because of what she experienced by being of value to others.
A caring, kind and generous spirit allows God’s presence to shine through us. Our task is to make God visible every way we can, in all the circumstances we can. When we become that window, others see what has the potential to change their lives. Amanda became that light. The Apostle Paul understood and became passionate about that light. When Jesus spoke words of love from a cross, he became that light. After watching and hearing everything that happened during Jesus’ crucifixion a Roman soldier said, “Truly this was the Son of God.” (Mark 15:39). We are now custodians of the light that cost Jesus his life. Never, ever grow tired of letting that light shine.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Thank you God for reaching out to all of us. We come seeking inspiration to become more than we know ourselves to be. Some of us do not know your Word as well as we could. Some of us have not learned to tithe our money. Some of us know forgiveness only as something we should do. Some of us do not know what worry communicates about the quality of our faith. During these Lenten days, lead us to let go of attitudes that prevent your presence from being visible in our lives. Teach us the wisdom of risking our known identity in order to stretch and change. Heal us of our unrecognized desire to remain as we are. Guide us to be vehicles of your healing, nurturing spirit. Amen.